The Trade Bill Gets Even Worse; GOP Spits in Pope Francis's Eye

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Senate will be returning to the issue of trade this week, after a revolt among Democrats in the House made it difficult to perceive a way forward in the lower chamber. The Democrats refused to support assistance for workers whose jobs are lost on account of the trade pacts, making the whole a poison pill. But, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks he has found the silver bullet, re-inserting the worker assistance as an amendment to an essentially unrelated bill to promote trade with sub-Saharan Africa. Cue to the old saw about not wanting to see how sausage and laws are made, although, I have seen sausage made and it did not make me as queasy as what we are watching on Capitol Hill.

The current trade bill just got a lot worse, and the Democrats should refuse to support it, no matter what legislation it is appended to. Language was added last week that would forbid U.S. trade negotiators from even addressing immigration and climate change issues in their negotiations. So, as President Obama later this year heads to Paris for the climate change talks, the GOP has placed a millstone around his neck. The relevant language can be found on page 251 of the draft legislation here.

European officials, who are not dependent on campaign contributions from the extraction industries, have voiced their concern about the proposals. They are not hostile to the idea of a free trade pact with the Pacific nations, quite the contrary. But, they are not willing to sell out “our common home” as Pope Francis called it to environmental degradation artists in order to achieve that trade pact.

Earlier this year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter on trade to the chairmen and ranking members of the relevant congressional committees. The letter sets out the moral framework within which the bishops assess trade legislation:

History provides evidence that increased trade and investment can be truly beneficial, provided that they are structured in a way that helps to reduce, not exacerbate, inequality or injustice. History also teaches that the parameters set in trade promotion authority legislation for the negotiation of specific agreements may not sufficiently protect against potential serious moral and human implications. Trade policies must be grounded in people-centered ethical criteria, in pursuit of the common good for our nation and people around the world. Any legislation pertaining to the negotiation or implementation of trade agreements must abide by principles which promote and defend human life and dignity, protect the environment and public health, and promote justice and peace in our world.

The letter, which was signed by Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace.

The bishops’ letter cited a host of specific moral concerns, beginning with protections for the rights and livelihoods of workers, intellectual property rights, the rights of migrants, and the need for sustainable development that is environmentally responsible. I would not that another letter appeared last week, the encyclical from Pope Francis on the environment. He called for all sector of society to take actions to protect the environment. This was the GOP response, the legislative equivalent of Rush Limbaugh’s trash-talking the pope.

Many of us in the 1990s thought trade pacts, such as NAFTA, would represent a way for the so-called New Democrats to distinguish themselves from their predecessors and that, on the merits, increased trade would benefit everyone. We were wrong. The promise of free trade helping not just American workers but workers in poorer regions has proven illusory. Trade pacts give large multinational corporations enormous power to enforce their will, but many countries lack any enforcement mechanisms for labor violations. And, the benefits of increased trade go disproportionately to the investor class, who hardly need additional assistance.

A few weeks back, I was visiting Chicago and met an old friend for drinks. He had, like me, been a New Democrat in the 1990s. He had worked at The New Republic which championed NAFTA and the whole New Democrat agenda. And we both realized we were re-evaluating everything we had believed back then. In his column this weekend, Harold Meyerson notes that trade pacts are even more insidious now for US workers because we lack the support for workers that one finds in Germany. I certainly have grown more suspicious of markets since then and only an ostrich with its head firmly in the sand can fail to see the nasty effects of increased money in politics since the early 1990s. The extraction industries – or their mouthpieces – have been leading the charge against Pope Francis’ encyclical, although Speaker Boehner and Chairman Ryan may have just one-upped the Heartland Institute and the Acton Institute and other groups that traffic in climate change denial.

The Democrats on Capitol Hill should reject fast track. The bishops’ lobbyists should be knocking on doors today in Capitol Hill demanding that these latest amendments be stripped. And it is time for America’s leading economists to think about how trade pacts can work that really benefit everyone. The German model to which Meyerson points is a starting point, at least when considering domestic workers. But, foreign workers need protections. The earth needs protection. I am not a protectionist, but the idea is no longer dismissible as it seemed to be twenty years ago. It is time to re-think the entire what this economic system works. Isn’t that precisely what Pope Francis is calling for in Laudato Si’?  

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